Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Theologies of Moloch

Quotes and links on Newtown, and guns more generally (mostly via Twitter).
Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:
First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)
Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

-- Garry Wills, "Our Moloch"


Dangerous jobs in today's America (via)


Gun rights advocates also argue that guns provide the ultimate insurance of our freedom, in so far as they are the final deterrent against encroaching centralized government, and an executive branch run amok with power. Any suggestion of limiting guns rights is greeted by ominous warnings that this is a move of expansive, would-be despotic government. It has been the means by which gun rights advocates withstand even the most seemingly rational gun control measures. An assault weapons ban, smaller ammunition clips for guns, longer background checks on gun purchases — these are all measures centralized government wants, they claim, in order to exert control over us, and ultimately impose its arbitrary will. I have often suspected, however, that contrary to holding centralized authority in check, broad individual gun ownership gives the powers-that-be exactly what they want.

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be. The N.R.A. would have each of us steeled for impending government aggression, but it goes without saying that individually armed citizens are no match for government force. The N.R.A. argues against that interpretation of the Second Amendment that privileges armed militias over individuals, and yet it seems clear that armed militias, at least in theory, would provide a superior check on autocratic government.

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly — and everything conducive to that.

-- Firmin DeBrabander, "The Freedom of an Armed Society"
Or, as Teresa Nielsen Hayden put it, "Americans love owning guns because it lets them pretend their safety isn't a function of our shared society. They should grow up."



Quick facts and links from diverse sources:

People in possession of a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot during an assault than those who didn’t have a firearm.
Although medical advances ensure that fewer lives are being lost to violence, incidences of such violence are actually increasing.
Sales are booming for kids' body armor.
Fully 87% of children killed in this way [by guns], in the industrialized world, are killed in the United States.
20 Disturbing Gun Ads
Tunisia had the lowest gun ownership rate in the world when they overthrew their dictator of 24 years.
How Japan has virtually eliminated shooting deaths.
German police fired just 85 bullets total in 2011.
The answer is not more guns.


The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children. They have made a clear moral choice: that the comfort and emotional reassurance they take from the possession of guns, placed in the balance even against the routine murder of innocent children, is of supreme value. Whatever satisfaction gun owners take from their guns—we know for certain that there is no prudential value in them—is more important than children’s lives. Give them credit: life is making moral choices, and that’s a moral choice, clearly made.

-- Adam Gopnik, "Newton and the Madness of Guns"


Twitter-length commentary from diverse sources:

• Conn. priest: "I just told a little boy that his sister died. And he said, 'Who am I going to play with?'"-- Audrey Cooper

• "Kant famously claimed it wrong to lie to a deranged murderer to save someone, which is what Victoria Soto is rightly praised for doing" -- Chris Bertram

• "I support the right to keep and bear children." -- Tom Tomorrow

• "If you believe you live in a country where you need a gun for personal protection at all times you’re implying you live in a failed state. "  -- Tobias Buckell

• "If only the first victim, Adam Lanza's mother, had been a gun owner, she could have stopped this before it started." -- Michael Moore (he also posted a link to a free, online copy of his Oscar-winning film Bowling for Columbine)

• "The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of teachers and kindergarteners. -- " - Billmon

• "Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again." -- James Fallows, "American Exceptionaslims: The Shootings Will Go On"

• "Here's a mind-boggling sentence: 'Tonight's speech was very different from any other he's given as president after a mass shooting.' "-- Angus Johnston

• "We have no reason to assume that this will be the last such incident in 2012." -- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

• The bottom line: "Gun regulation isn't about reducing violence, it's about reducing the lethality of violence. International evidence shows that works." -- Richard Yeselson


Sociologists study the links between small-towns and school shootings:
[I]n her 2004 book, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Newman concluded that many of these small-town massacres followed a few striking patterns.

One thing they discovered was that it was often boys at the margins of society who carried out these shootings. They weren’t loners. But they were often socially awkward and struggling to fit in. And the atmosphere of small towns could exacerbate those feelings. ”In a small town,” Newman says, “there often aren’t that many options, it’s hard to find a place where you can feel socially comfortable. These smaller towns are extremely stable — that’s what makes them such wonderful places to raise a family. But that very stability can often feel like a death sentence to those at the margins.”

So why attack schools? “Think about what the shooter wants to accomplish — trying to get the attention of their peers, trying to change how people around them think about them,” Newman says. “If you’re looking to attack a community and change the way people think about you, the school is the place where you’ll have the most devastating impact.”

Digby pairs the story of Dr. John Snow, in 1854, trying to convince a town to shut down the pump that was (although this was not yet understood, save by Dr. Snow) the cause of a cholera epidemic, with Australia's successful gun control laws, instituted in reaction to a massacre:
It took many more years before it was widely accepted that cholera came from the water. (In fact, it took a priest trying to prove that it was God's will to finally do it!)

But here's the relevant takeaway: they didn't need to cure the disease to end the epidemic. What ended it was shutting down the pump....

[Australia's gun control] did not solve the problem of mental illness or end the primitive capacity of human beings to commit murder and mayhem. Those are huge problems that their society, like all societies, is still grappling with every day. But it did end the epidemic of mass shootings. They have not had even one since then.

The lesson is this: End the epidemic and then we can --- and must --- talk about root causes and mental health facilities and our violent culture. But first things first --- shut down the damned pump.

From the front page of The New York Times, December 16, 2012:

The gun culture that we have today in the U.S. is not the gun culture, so to speak, that I remember from my youth. It’s too simple to say that it’s “sick;” it’s more accurately an absurd fetishization....

The guns that I grew up with (in the late-1970’s and 1980’s) were bolt-action rifles: non-automatic weapons, with organic fixtures - i.e., stocks - and limited magazine capacities....

I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today...

The “tactical” turn is what I want to flag here. It has what I take to be a very specific use-case, but it’s used - liberally - by gun owners outside of the military, outside of law enforcement, outside (if you’ll indulge me) of any conceivable reality-based community: these folks talk in terms of “tactical” weapons, “tactical” scenarios, “tactical applications,” and so on. It’s the lingua franca of gun shops, gun ranges, gun forums, and gun-oriented Youtube videos. (My god, you should see what’s out there on You Tube!) Which begs my question: in precisely which “tactical” scenarios do all of these lunatics imagine that they’re going to use their matte-black, suppressor-fitted, flashlight-ready tactical weapons? They tend to speak of the “tactical” as if it were a fait accompli; as a kind of apodeictic fact: as something that everyone - their customers, interlocutors, fellow forum members, or YouTube viewers - experiences on a regular basis, in everyday life. They tend to speak of the tactical as reality.

And I think there’s a sense in which they’ve constructured their own (batshit insane) reality.

One in which we have to live.

-- "Tactical Reality" (Letter to the Editor at Talking Points Memo)
There are a lot of folks who believe we’re free in the US because of guns.

It’s worth stepping back for a moment and thinking about what that means.

It is a bizarre, weirdly narcissistic notion that is totally unhinged from any of our history.... [T]he Jacksonian drive for universal manhood suffrage, the fight against the bank of the United States, abolitionism, the women’s rights movement, progressivism, the various religious awakenings, westward expansion, industrialization, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Era. Obviously you could come up with a very different list. But we’ve been a country now for well over two centuries and we have the longest period of unbroken republican, constitutional rule of any country in the world.

We’ve expanded our freedoms, sometimes let it recede. We’ve had major blots on in our history like the post-Reconstruction era in the South or the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. It’s a rich and complex, sometimes tragic, but generally incredibly powerful and inspiring story. And yet in really not a single one of these cases has any government — state or federal — been pushed back in some moment of overreach by armed citizens or even affected in its decision-making by the knowledge of an armed citizenry.

You could imagine a very different history in which various strong men had taken power and been deposed by violent uprisings. That just hasn’t been our history.

-- Josh Marshall, "In Search of the Guns & Freedom Unicorn"
It’s telling that the people who get paid to analyze politics recoil at the notion that its practitioners should connect it to real-life pain. They think they’re covering a sport, an entertainment. But politics matters, because policies matter. “Obamacare” and “gay marriage” are not just issues that might play badly with swing voters or turn the tide in Virginia; they’re issues that affect people’s lives. Gun control and the Second Amendment are issues, too, and now seems like a pretty good time to talk about them.

This was written in response to an earlier massacre.  I guess for a writer, publishing a piece about a gun massacre in America is a perennial.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
-- 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1, quoted by President Barack Obama on December 16, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut

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